DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Thursday 15 November 2007


No Country for Old Men (2007) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly MacDonald


“No Country For Old Men” is like no other film. Only Sam Peckinpah at his drunkest (“The Getaway” or “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”) could compare to the assault of bloody carnage that is this film. It’s the most emotionally dispassionate film about greed and violence I’ve ever seen. Saying all that, the film may be a masterpiece, but it’s not perfect - a complex backstory emerges, with much of it left unclear and for us to fill in the gaps, as well as an obtuse ending that will make your head scratch. But its masterfulness lies in its sparse depiction of two men fueled by greed to find a lost satchel of money – a head to head battle with a dozen or more corpses left in their wake.

I haven’t read the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and so I will only comment on the film itself - not what was left out, expanded or contracted, or what was better about the book. And beware of some spoilers towards the end of this review.

Tommy Lee Jones narrates the film like an omniscient observer of the events about to take place (like Sam Elliot in “The Big Lebowski” or Moses the Clockman in “Hudsucker Proxy”). He’s a sheriff with a wealth of knowledge and experience about the violent nature of man. His opening speech describes a teenage boy he sent to the electric chair without any second thoughts. The boy was made of pure evil –the Michael Myers type of evil that has no rational thought, emotion, or sanity.

Our hero is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who, while hunting in the desert, accidentally discovers a dope deal gone wrong – a half dozen dead bodies as well as a dead dog. Left over is the classic briefcase full of money - $2 million worth – enough for Moss and his shy wife, Carla (Kelly MacDonald) to retire. Moss is an intelligent character established by showing the details of his thought-process. He knows someone will eventually come looking for the money. And so, like a great chess player he calculates several moves ahead of his adversaries. But for most of the film, he doesn’t know who’s persuing him – just a relentless force of nature – echoing footsteps in a hall, or a vacant voice on the phone.

This force of nature is the evil Jones describes to us at the beginning. The Bubonic Plague with legs - Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The Michael Myers (“Halloween”) comparison is appropriate not only in his actions, but also how he is shot by the Coens. He is slow, methodical and literally impossible to kill. His weapon of choice is an oxygen tank and a silenced shotgun.

Three quarters of the film is a quid pro quo chase through Texas and into Mexico. Like the detailed mechanics of the events in “Blood Simple” the Coens craft a series of masterful sequences of predator and prey. The piece-de-résistance of sequences – which should win the Coen’s their first directing Oscar - is a scene which starts with a hotel room confrontation between Moss and Anton and ends out on the street amid a hail of bullets and blood.

Like “Fargo” the Coens leave style and cleverness on the cutting room floor and tell the story with a sparse cinematic technique. The performances and characters lead the story. Josh Brolin has never been better – and to think the brothers didn’t want Brolin for the role. It took an audition tape directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to convince them to let Brolin in the door. And now, I couldnf’t imagine anyone else in that role. Javier Bardem, who has been buzzed about ever since they started shooting, is the real deal. The showcase scene for Bardem is his confrontation with a gas station attendant. The rhythm of dialogue is off-putting and tense. Bardem sets a new bar for sadistic maniacs. Move over Hannibal Lector – you’ve been trumped.

But as I said the film is not perfect. In fact it ticked me off towards the end… SPOILERS ahead. The exit of one of the characters got me very angry. Somewhere in the third act he/she is killed off unceremoniously and we are given only a quick shot of the dead body to identify them to us. It was so quick I missed it, and so I was confused for the rest of the film whether he/she was dead or not. But my issue is not the killing of one of our heroes, but the fact it was done off-screen. Ok, it’s clear the Coens are telling us that their film is not typical cinematic fare, where heroes die like heroes and villains die like villains. Does that make the film better or greater? I will likely learn to accept this in subsequent viewings, but I will stay mad at the film for not giving me the final dramatic confrontation the film had been setting up the entire way.

The film also turns into Tommy Lee Jones’ story at the end. This confused me. Though the voiceover in the film is Jones’ he is virtually inactive and doesn’t affect the plot or events in the story. I’m still trying to reason the significance of his two final monologues – one to his ex-partner and the other to his wife at the end. It’s not clear to me and I desperately wish it was. For a film that was so clear and focused for 105 mins, having the final 15 mins as obscure and obtuse as it is confounds me.

But “No Country For Old Men” is still the must-see film of the year. And with the precedent of “The Departed” the Academy doesn’t seem to have a problem with high body counts, so I hope we see the Coen Bros on the podium come Oscar season. Enjoy.

Here’s a piece from the IFC News:


Anonymous said...

Nice review. One quibble though, it is not an oxygen tank with a silent shotgun. It's a pneumatic cattle bolt. The air pushes the bolt in to the head of the cattle and quickly retracts it, it's a slaughterhouse tool.

Alan Bacchus said...

Hey Anonymous,
Thanks for the clarification!

Anonymous said...

He has his cattle bolt thing as well as a silenced shotgun. Watch the movie

Anonymous said...


As it relates to one of the main character's death off-screen and ending the movie with Tommy Lee Jones character's story . . .

1) I think the Coen brothers use the off-screen death as a cinematic tool to provide example one of the underlying themes of the movie: the capriciousness of fate.

In fact, in the character's last pre-death conversation with the the lady at pool side, the soon-to-die off-screen character says that he is "looking for what's comin."

The lady replies to the character: "Yeah but no one ever sees that".

This is the last scene before you see the results of the character's death (that occurred off screen).

Furthermore, later on, Tommy Lee Jones is talking about being discouraged about what the world's turning into and not being prepared to fight it. His uncle tells him, "Can’t stop what’s coming. Ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity".

Tommy Lee Jones character is the narrator for the overarching story, the increasingly decaying moral fabric of society, while the chase between Anton C. and Moss represents the allegorical story within this larger context.

TLJ's character does not "affect" the plot, but rather his perspective "reflects" it.

Ultimately, this movie is about the capriciousness of fate and the older generation's lament for decaying morals and increased violence. TLJ's character acts as the compass by which the story of Anton and Moss can been seen within context.

One of the great things about Coen brothers movies is that there is never just one interpretation -- they leave a lot in the hands of the viewer to discern what they will from the movie. In this respect, the above is my take but I am sure there are many others plausible explanations. As a fan of the Coen brothers, I believe they take great pains to ensure that every scene and every character has a specific role/meaning within the film and they do not interject these characters randomly (even if at first blush it appears that way). I think this is definitely a movie that will make more sense upon a second and third viewing to which I personally look forward with much enthusiasm.

Alan Bacchus said...

Great analysis Anonymous. Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Good review. A couple comments: the offscreen death is very true to Cormac McCarthy's book. The book jumps from a scene with the two people immediately to the aftermath, just as in the movie. This wasn't an artistic contrivance by the Coen brothers. In fact, the movie actually shows a little more of the action than the book, with the pickup making its escape as Sheriff Bell drives up.

The lack of any description of the death highlights the second point: the book (and movie) isn't about Llewelyn Moss or Chigurh. It's about the Tommy Lee Jones character from the very start (as evidenced by the title, and noted by the previous poster). This is a little clearer in the book, where Sheriff Bell acts as the narrator and commentator. The book doesn't probe into the motivations or emotions of Moss or Chigurh, but does so deeply with Bell.

All in all, the movie did a great job translating the book. I highly recommend reading it if you enjoyed the movie.

Anonymous said...

It's Josh Brolin who stars in the role of the hunted, not James Brolin!! Get that right at least.

Alan Bacchus said...

Hey Anon,
Thanks for noting my James Brolin error - yikes. Their names are so similar.

Andrew57 said...

I appreciate your take on the ending. Though subsequent comments make sense -- and I loved most of the movie, too, and look forward to my second viewing -- the ending left me feeling like I had to make a lot of mental leaps to fill in some major gaps and I wasn't emotionally triggered enough to want to go to the effort. I think that is a flaw in the movie making.

That being said, the title is a delicious puzzle that goes deeper than some old man saying "things ain't the way they used to be". (After all, Billy the Kid was pretty violent in his day too.) Ultimately, the country that Tommy Lee Jones' character has become too old to inhabit is life itself. The brutality of existence has become too transparent. It is not incidental that the killer's weapon of choice is a device used to slaughter livestock, and TLJ's realization of this comes in the form of a memory of a man being kicked (to death?) by a bull being salughtered. In his final monologue, TLJ relates a dream in which his father lights the way for him into the country of the dead. He's had enough.

Anonymous said...

Wow I had to comment largely because I feel much like you about the movie and about the ending. After reading some of the more descript comments above I think I need to see the movie again. Its clearly an important movie, but its still frustrating when the screen goes dark and you havent the foggiest idea what you just saw.

I suppose if the book is about TMJ's character I give credit to the Coen Bros for creating an interesting movie around the sheriff's self-perceptions and occasional musings on the plot. Nevertheless its difficult to tie it all together in one viewing and having not read the book.

Anonymous said...

I also thought the message was not clear in the ending speech of tommy lee jones.i am still confused as to what he meant

Anonymous said...

Just saw this on HD pay-per-view....

I never read the book so I could be way off here but I think TLJ dies in the hotel room that night. The last scene shows him sitting on the bed looking down at the unscrewed vent after we all saw 'Sugar' hiding in the shadows. Then it seems to kindof fades to white.

I think the scenes at the end are what goes through TLJs mind as he dies. Everything outside is eerily white and strange. Of course it is west Texas and it always looks strange...

Just a thought.

Guy said...

I think that it's important to point out that, though the film seems to be about the "decay of civility", as one reviewer put it, it's actually about the opposite.

Ellis (Ed Tom's brother, uncle, whatever) says to him:

"Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming, it ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity."

This after describing how their grandfather was killed in the line of duty. His point, and the point of the film is exactly that - this is just more of the same. The guns may be bigger and pack more punch, but the men wielding them are the same. The title gives it away - it's the aging of the men that have changed their perspective and left them feeling as if they are "over-matched" (as Ed Tom explains to Ellis).